Have you been as disappointed as me with the new Sun on Sunday (SoS)? It’s just, well, so bland. It’s like the weekly Sun, only less interesting. I expect a Sunday paper to be patently different from the other six days and so, I suggest, do others. The News of the World (NotW) is a hard act to follow but not only have there been no major scoops and exclusives but absolutely none of the stories that really made the NotW the great tabloid product it was. It was that paper’s ability to uncover those local stories that made it such a compulsive read – such as drug-dealing parking wardens, council corruption, benefit scroungers, MPs leading double lives, and yes, the local vicar having an affair with the church flower arranger. The campaigning zealousness of the NotW is not evident in the SoS. It’s dull and makes no effort to make Sunday breakfast interesting.
Various commentators also seem distinctly unimpressed. Alexander Lebedev, proprietor of the Independent and Evening Standard, described the first issue as “quite flat and not particularly exciting. Just pages and pages of talent show judges”. Peter Preston, former Guardian editor said it was “too much like any other day of the week”, whilst John Walsh of The Independent said “it’s exactly the same as the daily, only less so… the exclusives lack the wow factor”.
When Alastair Campbell tweeted about the first edition, he said “Sun on Sunday have clearly put a phoney front page out. Real one will be second edition. Otherwise major ‘Is that it?’ problem.” And two former tabloid editors were also unimpressed, with Kelvin ‘Gotcha’ MacKenzie (ex-Sun editor) saying, “Personally, I like sleaze on a Sunday, so I feel slightly robbed”, and Roy Greenslade, former Daily Mirror editor describing it as “page after page of rather bland material … no surprises, no controversies.”
Circulation: It appears too that the readers agree. The Guardian reported that figures for the second weekend showed that SoS had lost over 500,000 readers from the launch, going from an ABC circulation of 3,213,613 to about 2.66m, down 17%. And whilst Murdoch himself had tweeted that a drop of 15% would be perfectly acceptable, one wonders how many NotW readers will remain loyal. Figures for the fourth weekend just released show that the title lost a further 300,000 readers, taking it down to 2.3m. This is a 12% drop on the previous week’s sales. As Steve Hewlett, the media commentator, said, 39% of NotW readers were ABC1s – to them it was a ‘guilty pleasure’. But there doesn’t seem to be any content now that offers that guilty pleasure. The lost 500,000 could be original ‘souvenir hunters’ or merely curious buyers, as Ipsos Mori, the polling organisation suggested, but the worry for executives at News International is that this further loss of 300,000 could be a haemorrhaging of its natural readership. Without a substantial improvement in content, I predict they will lose even more readers.
Costs and Pricing: Despite this, it is suggested that the costs of the SoS are little more than half of those of NotW, so its profitability seems secure. And its cover price of 50p has launched a price war with its red top competitors and so they’ve had to cut their costs too – The Guardian reports that the Daily Star Sunday has axed columnists Matthew Wright, Sally Bercow and the former Liverpool footballer Graeme Souness in response. So with a price war, it looks like whilst the consumer will benefit in terms of price, he or she won’t benefit in terms of quality. But as Roy Greenslade deftly put it, “in price wars, the gambler with the deepest pockets usually wins. And there are no prizes for guessing who that is”.
Branding: The other area of failure I see is in the new brand, embodied by the ‘new’ logo. Or is it new? Put simply, the logo looks too much like that of the weekday Sun. There’s no real distinction, even with the yellow ‘rising sun’ at the base of the logo. With the NotW, you had a logo that stood out, and was instantly recognisable. You knew it was Sunday. I would argue that not enough thought has gone into designing what should be the anchor of a strong brand. Surely ‘Sunday’ should be the message as much as the ‘Sun’? Sunday is a different day.
I suspect the current SoS logo was done in-house and in a rush – and it shows. It would be interesting if this had been given to a branding agency or even as a project to some design students – surely a more suitable logo would have increased the title’s chance of building strong brand equity from launch?
The actual execution of the brand launch received criticism too. Branding expert Mark Ritson, called it ‘significantly flawed’, going on to say: “One of the great magic tricks of branding is to construct a brand architecture that helps an organisation deliver on its goals. All too often, structure can be just as important as strategy when it comes to branding”. He suggested that by closely aligning himself with the new brand, Rupert Murdoch has tarnished it via his association with the Milly Dowler case specifically, and hacking in general. But I’m not sure I agree fully with Ritson here, given Murdoch’s profusive apologies, apparent humbleness, and the garnering of public sympathy by his almost gaga appearance in front of thatcommittee of MPs – remember the custard pie incident? This has gone a long way in helping distance him from the scandal. And whilst there is latent opprobrium to a man who is seen by many to have been far too politically influential, I see the failure in branding as mainly due to poor content and a distinctly unimpressive logo rather than Murdoch’s close association to the title.
The SoS is thus a failure in terms of branding and content. Perhaps it was the need to manage costs, not to offend, or fear of failure itself, but this launch lacks innovation and does not seek to offer added value to an already declining market. It’s just more of the same.